Home FinanceBusiness As midterm elections loom, Meta CEO shifts focus away from elections

As midterm elections loom, Meta CEO shifts focus away from elections

by YAR

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made securing the 2020 US election a top priority. He regularly met with an election team, which included more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on how to defend voters’ rights.

Facebook’s core election team, which was renamed Meta last year, has since disbanded. Approximately 60 people now focus primarily on the elections, while others divide their time on other projects. They meet with another executive, not Zuckerberg. And the chief executive hasn’t spoken to civil rights groups recently, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the November midterm elections.

Safeguarding the election is no longer Zuckerberg’s main concern, four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation said. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as faith in the US electoral system reaches a breaking point. Hearings into the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have underscored how precarious the election can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, and social media platforms remain a key way to reach American voters.

Election misinformation continues to proliferate online. This month, “2,000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram and garnered more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commentators said they expected voter fraud this year and warned against the use of mail-in and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also withdrawn some of their focus on the election. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing misinformation about the election in March 2021, has been concerned about its $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Musk has suggested that he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.

“Companies should step up their efforts to prepare to protect the integrity of elections for years to come, not back down,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive of consultancy Anchor Change, who previously handled electoral politics in Meta. “There are a lot of issues left, including candidates insisting the 2020 election was rigged, and we don’t know how they’re handling it.”

Meta, which along with Twitter banned Trump from its platforms after the US Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, has worked for years to limit political falsehoods on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a spokesman for Meta, said the company had “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections play out on our platforms since before the 2020 US election and through the dozens of global elections since.”

According to Mr. Reynolds, Meta has hundreds of people in more than 40 teams focused on election work. With each election, he said, the company was “building teams and technologies and developing partnerships to crack down on manipulation campaigns, limit the spread of misinformation, and maintain industry-leading transparency around political ads and pages.”

Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesman, said the company was continuing “our efforts to protect the integrity of the election conversation and keep the public informed of our approach.” For the midterm elections, Twitter has tagged the accounts of political candidates and provided information boxes on how to vote in local elections.

The way Meta and Twitter treat the election has implications beyond the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, which is holding general elections in October, President Jair Bolsonaro has recently raised questions about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia also hold elections in October.

“People in the US are almost certainly going to get the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to any integrity on any platform, especially for US elections,” said Sahar Massachi, executive director of the Integrity Institute think tank and former Facebook employee. “And as bad as it is here, think of the worst it is anywhere else.”

Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became apparent after 2016, when Russian agents used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the 2018 US presidential election. In 2018, Zuckerberg testified before Congress that electoral security was their top priority.

“The most important thing that matters to me right now is making sure that no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said.

Since then, the social network has become efficient at suppressing foreign efforts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts said. But Facebook and Instagram still struggle with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they said.

In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner at his home for civil rights leaders and held conference calls and Zoom calls with them, promising to make election integrity a top focus.

He also met regularly with an electoral team. More than 300 employees from various product and engineering teams were asked to create new systems to detect and eliminate misinformation. Facebook also moved aggressively to remove toxic content, banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.

Around the same time, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay polling place rental fees, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative costs.

The week before the November 2020 elections, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of falsehoods.

But while there were successes (the company kept foreign election interference off the platform), it struggled to handle Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of voter fraud. After the January 6 riots, Facebook banned Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January 2023.

Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistleblower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election security features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook prioritized growth and compromise on safety, he said.

In October, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would focus on the metaverse. The company has been restructured, with more resources dedicated to developing the online world.

Meta also reorganized its electoral team. Now the number of employees whose work is solely focused on elections is about 60, up from more than 300 in 2020, according to employees. Hundreds more people participate in election meetings and are part of cross-functional teams, where they work on other issues. The divisions that build virtual reality software, a key component of the metaverse, have expanded.

Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those who focus on election security, the four employees said, though he receives their briefings. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

Several civil rights groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Zuckerberg is not involved in discussions with them as before, nor are other senior Meta executives, they said.

“I’m worried,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, who spoke with Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “He seems out of sight, out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced that she will be leaving Meta this fall.)

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, another civil rights group, said Sandberg and Zuckerberg asked their organization for recommendations in 2020 to thwart election misinformation. His suggestions were largely ignored, he said, and he hasn’t communicated with any of the executives in more than a year. He now interacts with Meta’s Vice President for Civil Rights, Roy Austin.

Meta said Mr. Austin meets quarterly with civil rights leaders, adding that it was the only major social media company with an executive in charge of civil rights.

In May, 130 civil rights organizations, progressive think tanks, and public interest groups wrote a letter to Zuckerberg and the CEOs of YouTube, Twitter, Snap, and other platforms. They asked them to remove posts about the lie that Trump won the 2020 election and to curb the spread of misinformation ahead of the midterms.

Yosef Getachew, director of the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group studied misinformation about the 2020 election on social media, said the companies have not responded.

“The Big Lie is front and center in the midterms with so many candidates using it to pre-emptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians on Michigan Y Arizona who falsely said that the dead vote for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing the Big Lie.”

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